βoyfriend (Part 3)

This is the third part of a multi-part story by Madeline Ashby imagining a series of future technologies, and one way they might end up being applied.


Prom night, her mom took a lot of photos and her dad gave her extra cash. Violet got into the car by herself—no crowd of friends, no flesh and blood boyfriend, just herself and her phone. "Do you have the address?" she asked.

"Already forwarded to the GPS," he said.

The drive took them out of town. Evergreens rolled past her window and she wondered where Colin was—was he looking at deserts, now? Was he still on the plane? Was he lost on roads he didn't know, or was he, like her, guided by a soothing voice that led him ever further into the darkening night?

Violet watched water peeking out from gaps between trees and roofs. Far below were chains of lights: boats and hotels and cars like dying fireflies buzzing slowly from place to place. "Why are we headed north?" she asked. "Isn't the dance down there somewhere?"

"Trust me," her boyfriend said. "We're going to the right place."


The right place, according to the GPS, was a house buried far back on a tree-rimmed property, shrouded in pine-scented shadows with the exception of a single blinking porch light. Violet stood shivering in an unseasonably cool breeze. She stared at the immense doors and wondered how to go about explaining her situation. "You and the GPS have some explaining to do," she told her boyfriend.

"Ask them," he said, as a van pulled up behind her.

Violet turned, blinded by headlights, and squinted at the shapes that hopped out. "Hey," said one, and she recognized Ted's voice. He wore a black suit and white tie, with checkerboard sneakers. So did all his friends—the kids from the normal classes, all of whom stared at the trees with increasingly-suspicious expressions.

"Happened to you too, huh?" Ted asked.

Violet pointed. "My GPS-"

"Yeah, same here," Ted said. He lifted his phone and shook it. "Girlfriend screwed up royal." He spoke into the phone: "Are you hearing me, sweetheart? I am so totally filing an incident report when we get home."

The phone chattered back in sweet, slightly superior tones. Ted quickly shut her off. He frowned at Violet. "You didn't have a date?"

She lifted her phone. "Boyfriend."

"Yeah, well, maybe he can search for directions."

"Did you get that?" Violet asked, speaking into her phone.

"No directions are necessary," her boyfriend said. "You're in the right place."

"Says you," she said, and started marching for the door. She promptly slipped—her little kitten heels were no good in gravel—and bared both teeth and feet in frustration. "My feet are getting all cut up, thanks to you."

Someone grabbed her elbow. Ted. Then he was crouching in front of her. "Get on."

"What? Really?"

"Come on. There might be glass."

"And that's why Ted's in the smart classes," one of Ted's friends said. They all laughed.

"Ignore them," Ted said.

"But, I could hurt your back-"

"Do it," her boyfriend urged. "He's trying to be nice. Let him."

"Okay," Violet said, and realized only a moment later that she had said yes to both boys at once. But by then she was clinging to Ted's back, phone in one hand and heels in the other, her teeth clicking together as he hitched her up a little higher and trundled down the path.

"Hey," she said, because she was so close she could smell him now, "you washed your hair." She laid one cheek against its length. "And you conditioned it!"

"Yeah, and you waxed your legs, apparently," he said, squeezing the underside of her knees. "I can't get a good grip. No traction."

"It's my lotion," she said. "Fair trade cocoa butter."

"No wonder you smell like birthday cake."

They arrived at the door. Ted leaned in close to the door. "Knock."

She did, but the door merely gave way, sliding open to reveal a single votive candle flickering on the tile floor. When Ted leaned around, Violet saw another, and then another. The candles led down a flight of stairs and into complete darkness.

"Okay, dude," one of Ted's friends said, from behind them, "you are either the world's smoothest operator, or we are in for some serious serial murder madness right here."

"Maybe you should put me down," Violet said.

"No way," Ted said. "If this gets weird, I'm running like hell and taking you with me."

"If it gets weird?" Violet asked. "Do you have a terminally broad weirdness threshold, or something?"

Behind them, car lights swung over the house, momentarily exposing the interior: modern furniture, odd lumps of sculpture contorted in painful shapes. Ted turned, and Violet saw a female shape crunching down the gravel path. Meegan. "Okay, I have been driving in circles," she said. "And no matter how many times I re-program that stupid thing-"

"You always end up here," Violet said. "Us too."

Meegan adjusted a pair of velvet opera gloves. "Well, I guess we'd better go inside."

"You're not, you know, freaked out?" one of Ted's friends asked.

"No, I am pissed off," Meegan said, and lifted her silvery, swishing skirts as she stomped into the house and down the stairs.

"Careful you don't catch fire!" Ted said.

Meegan vanished. A moment later, they heard a distinct creak, then a pulsing thump—a bass beat. Then Meegan's voice: "You guys really need to come down here."

Part 4


GPS is one of those bewitching technologies that comes across as benign, almost mundane. It's also easy to anthropomorphize, as most vehicular GPS devices come equipped with voices that speak in dulcet tones about wrong turns and roads that don't exist. But the GPS device is also a fitting metaphor for the relationship between those who surveil and those who are surveilled: we buy the GPS for our own safety and security, so that might never know the anxiety of being lost or late or uncertain, in exchange for constant observation from above.

This portion of the story was inspired by a recent trip to the Kiawartha Lakes region during which the GPS, confused by our pitiful human idea of directions, guided us ever further up a dead-end road in a town we didn't know. A Euler path this was not, and amid much joking and (increasingly nervous) laughter, we wondered if perhaps the GPS had finally decided to abandon his primate masters in the trees from whence they came.

Photos: biberta


"we buy the GPS for our own safety and security, so that might never know the anxiety of being lost or late or uncertain, in exchange for constant observation from above."

That last statement casts a benign technology in an ominous and inaccurate light. GPS isn't a constant observation, it is a constant beacon. It is a blind system of landmarks that our receivers can use to pinpoint our location.

I think this is an important distinction. The passivity of GPS makes it a good model for other technologies that would help us know where we are, without an involuntary release of our position.

Posted by: Jon on February 1, 2009 1:09 PM

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